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Peter Althouse: Wesleyan and Reformed Impulses in the Keswick and Pentecostal Movements

…we experience the proper Christian salvation, whereby, “through grace,” we “are saved by faith,” consisting of those branches, justification and sanctification. By justification we are saved from the guilt of sin, and restored to the favour of God; by sanctification we are saved from the power and root of sin, and restored to the image of God. All experience, as well as Scripture, show this salvation to be both instantaneous and gradual.8

For Wesley, salvation was both instantaneous and progressive, which created real tension in his understanding of sanctification as the perfecting of the Christian.9 In The Plain Account of the Christian Faith he stated:

I believe this instant [of perfection] generally is the instant of death, the moment before the soul leaves the body. But I believe it may be ten, twenty or forty years before.

I believe it is usually many years after justification; but that it may be within five years or five months after it. I know of no conclusive argument to the contrary.10

The tension between instantaneous and progressive sanctification was an equivocation which Wesley could not resolve, but generally he saw perfection as the goal of the Christian life.

Wesley argued that perfection was the reorientation of fallen human existence, which changed one’s inward motivation so that a sinless existence was possible.11 The Christian was freed from both inward and outward sin. For Wesley, believers were “saved in this world from all sin, from all unrighteousness; that they [were] now in such a sense perfect as not to commit sin, and be freed from evil thoughts and evil temptations.”12

The concern which Wesley had was that if one argued that perfection in faith were not possible in this world, then one could argue that sin was inevitable. As Albert Outler, a Wesleyan scholar, argued:

“Perfection” [was] the fulfillment of faith’s desire to love God above all else and all else in God, so far as conscious will and deliberate action [were] concerned. To deny this as at least a possibility seemed to Wesley to imply that deliberate sin [was] inevitable and unavoidable—which would say that man was made to sin and that his sinful disposition [was] invincible.13

John Wesley thus defined Christian perfection as the possible realization of living a holy life in this world, but the tension that Wesley maintained between the instantaneousness and progressiveness of perfection was to swing to an instantaneous experience of perfection in later Holiness articulations. The Holiness movements of the mid- to late- nineteenth century defined Christian perfection as a “second blessing” experience.

Wesley’s perfectionist theology was to take root in nineteenth century American culture in the form of Methodism. The first Methodist society was established as early as the 1760s in Maryland by Robert Strawbridge and in New York City by Barbara Heck. Wesley also sent two missionaries, Richard Boardman and Joseph Pilmore, to the United States in 1779. People such as Francis Asbury, who oversaw the Methodist movement, Philip William Otterbein and Martin Boehm, who established the United Brethren denomination (1815), and Jacob Albright, who established the Evangelical Association (1816) were paramount in the success of American Methodism. The general thrust of these Methodist denominations were the themes of Jesus Christ as Saviour, the authority of Scripture for theology and sanctification.14

Thomas Langford argued that before 1840, the theme of perfection was not really stressed,15 but Timothy Smith showed that perfectionism was still a concern in Methodism. In the Methodist General Conference of 1824 and 1832 the need for holiness was stressed and the theme of holiness had so infiltrated American culture that it had gained intellectual respectability.16 American historian George Tindall made a similar point when he argued that Americans of the nineteenth century believed themselves to be the embodiment of perfectionist virtue, a people who had rejected the corruption of the European Establishment church and had envisioned a new era of liberty and virtue.17

In the late 1830s, a concern for the practical realization of holiness pressed to the fore. In 1839, Phoebe Palmer claimed to have experienced the blessing of entire sanctification and preached that one could obtain this perfection through the “shorter way.” The older form of Methodism insisted that the “longer way” of perfection involved waiting upon the assurance of the Holy Spirit that this perfection had indeed been received. This waiting often took a life-time of seeking.18 The “longer way” of perfection focused on the progressive element of Wesley’s theology at the expense of the instantaneous. Palmer, however, focused on the instantaneous. She argued that one who sought perfection needed only to trust in the grace of God.

Palmer believed that complete sanctification was offered to the believer by the grace of God and could be immediately realized when the believer responded to this call by placing “all upon the altar.” As she argued, “It was thus, that by ‘laying all upon this altar,’ she, by the most unequivocal Scriptural testimony, as she deemed laid herself under the most sacred obligation to believe that the sacrifice became ‘holy and acceptable….'”19 This “shorter way” involved three steps: The first one demanded an entire consecration, where one surrendered all earthly desires upon the altar. The second step was an act of faith where perfection was accepted as the promise of God when the conditions of consecration had been met. The third step involved the testimony of perfection as a means to encourage others to seek perfection.20

With the Holiness movement, perfection theology became an instantaneous experience of God by the working of the Holy Spirit. As one minister said in 1840 regarding the lack of practical holiness, “[l]et us not suppose it is enough to love this doctrine in our standards; let us labour to have the experience and power of it in our hearts.”21 The influence of Wesleyan perfectionist theology upon the Keswick Conferences was not so much in the actual theological formulations, but in the belief that a “necessary” life of sin was unscriptural. Yet the holiness theme of Keswick was the direct influence of a modified Calvinist understanding of sin and sanctification. This being said, the Wesleyan perfectionist theme influenced Calvinist theology, particularly the revivalism of the Oberlin school, as its general implications were evident in American culture.

III. Sanctification in American Revivalism and the Oberlin School

Parallel to Wesleyan perfectionism and the growth of Methodism in the United States was a Calvinist movement which reinterpreted predestination theology to stressed the need for an experiential, personal conversion. William McLoughlin argued that the first great awakening (1730-60) led by revivalist Jonathan Edwards was, in part, rooted the belief that the Calvinist doctrine of predestination was no longer defensible.22 A more tenable argument, however, was that the Calvinist doctrine of predestination was reinterpreted to fit the conditions of eighteenth and nineteenth century America, particularly in the heightened place of human subjectivity and culture. Strict predestination, which was interpreted in the social conditions of European monachicalism, was reinterpreted in the nineteenth century by a fledgling American democracy, informed by Enlightenment beliefs of human responsibility and Romantic beliefs in human self fulfilment. Whatever the case, the first great awakening witnessed a break between “old-light” factions and “new-light” factions, where there was a new-light (revelation) from God regarding the destiny of his people.

Old-light factions were divided into two groups. One, which consisted primarily of Arians, Socians, Arminians, tended to be rationalists, deists, Unitarians and Universalists. This group opposed the doctrines of predestination, innate depravity and believed in the freedom of the will and the universal offer of salvation. Furthermore, this group argued that there was no necessity for a “conversion experience,” but that salvation could be attained through moral discipline and a respectable life. The second old-light group upheld the Calvinist covenantal theology with a modification of certain church practices. Though many old-lights were sympathizers of Edwards revival, they reacted in opposition when church schisms occurred.

The new-light factions were also divided into two groups. One group consisted of ordained minister who supported Edwards’ reforms. The second group was more radical and demanded drastic ecclesiastical reforms. While many schismed into new denominations of Separatists and Separate Baptists, a good many stayed within their own churches to initiate internal reforms.23

New-light Calvinists, also described as Evangelical Calvinists, emphasized a crisis conversion and spiritual regeneration independent of the social conditions. In other words, God’s grace, it was believed, was still manifested independent of rational or social conditions. The human response to God was with the heart. McLoughlin claimed:

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Category: Church History

About the Author: Peter F. Althouse, PhD (University of Toronto), is Assistant Professor of Religion at Southeastern University. He is the author of Spirit of the Last Days: Pentecostal Eschatology in Conversation with Jürgen Moltmann (T & T Clark, 2003), and has written many articles on eschatology, pneumatology and Pentecostal studies. Faculty page. Facebook.

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